The Enfleshment of God

Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited. Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin. Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God. God accepted death that the world might accept life. The Creator assumed temporality to redeem creation from futility. A hymn writer summarizes it this way:

This night of wonder, night of joy,
was born the Christ, our brother;
He comes, not mighty to destroy
to bid us love each other.
How could He quit his kingly state
for such a world of greed and hate?
What deep humiliation
secured the world’s salvation!
(“Break Forth O Beauteous, Heavenly Light,” Methodist Hymnal 1989)

—Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 106-7

Rejoice!

Hark, yonder! What means the firing of the Tower gun? Why all this ringing of bells in the church steeples, as if all London were mad with joy? There is a Prince born; therefore there is this salute, and therefore are the bells ringing. Ah, Christians, ring the bells of your hearts, fire the salute of your most joyous songs, For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.

Wipe that tear away! Come, stop that sighing! Hush your murmuring. What matters your poverty? Unto you a child is born. What matter your sickness? Unto you a Son is given.  What matters your sin? For this child shall take the sin away, and this Son shall wash and make you fit for heaven. I say, if it be so,

Lift up the heart, lift up the voice,
Rejoice aloud! Ye saints, rejoice!

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons 46:694

Christmas 1944 in Berlin

The late Ilse Shaffer, who later married an American and with him served as a missionary in her homeland of Germany, grew up in Berlin during World War II and wrote about Christmas 1944 in that city. How prone we are to look back at all the people in Nazi Germany as “the enemy” and never consider the plight of Christians there.  (Note: The “Christmas Trees” she mentions was the ironic label given by Germans to the incendiary markers dropped by Allied planes to target an area for the bombers.)

CHRISTMAS 1944 IN BERLIN

Would there really be Christmas again? Was this the time to celebrate? Where did all the people live that one saw in the streets, the overcrowded streetcars and buses? (So many buildings were destroyed.) Our army in the east was defeated. The Russians were in East Prussia and the Allies were getting close to the western border. We could no longer trust our news, but we knew the end was not too far away.

And now Christmas was approaching, the celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace; my heart was bitter toward God. What did it mean this Christmas message: “Peace on earth?” There was no peace. This was the sixth Christmas since the war began, and still no peace. Where was God in all the destruction, the dying, the bombing? We saw the first refugees from the east, pulling a little cart with their few possessions, walking in this cold winter, walking, walking, walking, telling us horror stories of murder and rapes by Russian soldiers. “Peace on Earth”??? What would the next months bring? The bombing had not stopped; it got worse, day and night, day and night.

There were no lights in the streets, not many goods on the shelves, only at night the sky was lit up by the “Christmas Tree” bright lights that came down from heaven. The U.S. bombers were coming. If those lights shone over us or near us, we knew we were the targets of their bombs. We better get ready for it. We had not seen any Christmas trees for sale; we had better forget about Christmas. Then, the last day before the holidays my father had found a big branch of a tree about three feet tall. We rejoiced. What shall we do with it? Cut it up, put it in a vase? I found a big flower pot, filled it with sand, cut off the lower branches which I fastened to the trunk to make it look like a tree. The main branch was not quite straight. So I took a walking stick from my father, stuck it in the sand in the flower pot and gave the branch more support. It looked more and more like a Christmas tree. The clear old ornaments were fastened to the branches. There was our Christmas tree!

I cannot remember any presents. My mother raised rabbits, at least one gave its life so we could enjoy meat, but the real Christmas to us was when we all walked to church and heard the Christmas story. How different it sounded this year. Mary and Joseph, tired and hungry, could not find a place to live—so many people’s homes were bombed, they could not find a place to live—God understood. The baby Jesus had no bed, slept in a manger—our soldiers had to sleep on the floor, on straw or hay. God understood. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus had to leave in a hurry, fleeing Herod—whole families: we saw grandparents, mothers and children, fleeing from home—God understood. How close God was—He was rejected, poor, in danger. His suffering had begun with His birth. He was one of us. Peace, the peace of God, filled our hearts. Christmas took on new meaning—He understood.

The Great Exchange

Christmas is the season of the great exchange. Greeting cards are exchanged, as are social invitations and visits. Gifts are exchanged around the Christmas tree on December 25—and at store counters on December 26. But none of that begins to approximate what is meant here by “the great exchange.” For in the depths of its meaning, Christmas is about the exchange of divinity and humanity, of eternity and temporality, of life and death.

The season’s familiarity and its immense popular appeal obscure the fact that Christmas is a mystery comparable to that of the Pasch and fully dependent on faith in the Paschal victory. The wonder of Christmas is not, as might be supposed, “How can a virgin bear a child?” The virginal conception of Jesus is not in itself the mystery but is rather one way of pointing to the mystery, of indicating that what occurred at Bethlehem is outside the bounds of both human experience and explanation. The marvel is that the Creator of the cosmos comes as creature for the purpose of setting right all that has gone wrong on this tiny planet. The wonder is that the Eternal One who can be neither created nor destroyed willingly becomes subject to both birth and death.

—Laurence Hill Stookey,  Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 105

The Fullness of Time (Galatians 4:4)

He came at the hour which God had determined.  The infinite Lord appoints the date of every event; all times are in His hand. There are no loose threads in the providence of God, no stitches are dropped, no events are left to chance. The great clock of the universe keeps good time, and the whole machinery of providence moves with unerring punctuality.

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sermon “The Great Birthday and Our Coming of Age”